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Entertainment & Arts

Brahms, summer and the South Pasadena Library make for a perfect combination

PASADENA, CALIF. -- MONDAY, JULY 8, 2019: From left: Margaret Batjer, violin, Orion Weiss, piano, Ro
From left: Margaret Batjer, violin, Orion Weiss, piano, Robert deMaine, cello, and Paul Neubauer, viola, perform Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 2 on Monday night as part of “Summer of Brahms” at South Pasadena Public Library.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Music Critic

The “Summer of Brahms” began Sunday evening. It’s a short summer, a blip that will be over just as the hot weather arrives this weekend.

On eight consecutive nights the whole of Brahms’ chamber music is being played — three big works per evening — in the handsome community room of the South Pasadena Public Library, shaded by a handful of the 21,000 namesakes in this “City of Trees,” and likely from a stock older than Brahms himself.

Has anyone done this before? No one knows. Nothing comes to mind, but computers haven’t been hoarding program data in the 122 years since Brahms has died.

Why Brahms? The New Hollywood String Quartet, which has organized this summer festival — meant to be the first of what will be annual composer surveys — begins a short program note with the question. It is quickly dismissed with another, “Why not?”

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The music, after all, is arguably Brahms’ most important, each work remarkable in its way. The venue, moreover, happens to be unusually inviting. The library’s former reading room boasts leaded-glass windows, painted-beam ceiling and reverberant, you-are-there acoustics (from a time when readers understood the pleasures of a whisper).

The gathering of musicians for this suburb’s Restoration Concert Series includes the concertmasters and some principal players from the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. There are notable local orchestra musicians, as well as guests who include famed cellist Lynn Harrell, former New York Philharmonic principal violist Paul Neubauer and pianist Orion Weiss. The youngest performer is a 21-year-old Colburn School violist, Johanna Nowik.

Still, the question resounds, why, indeed, Brahms here and now? The New Hollywood String Quartet reinvents the legendary Hollywood String Quartet, the first great American string quartet, founded in 1939 and comprising Hollywood studio musicians. That raises further questions. What has Brahms done for Hollywood? And, better still, what have we done for Brahms?

Plenty! The movies would have been very different were it not for Brahms. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who all but invented the orchestral film score for the talkies, came of age in a turn-of-century Vienna a few years after Brahms’ death and under his spell. Schoenberg convinced a generation of L.A. composers from John Cage to film luminaries that Brahms was no academic and classicist but, at heart, a progressive. With America now debating the need for and value of a progressive platform, Brahms’ subtle example of tradition transformed is worth examination.

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But maybe the biggest lesson of all at the first two concerts on Sunday and Monday nights was about resilience. Before the performance Sunday, NHSQ violist Robert Brophy announced that his wife, the quartet’s first violinist, Tereza Stanislav, injured her shoulder two days earlier and couldn’t play for at least the first concerts. At the last minute, the violinist Roger Wilkie had agreed to step in.

Wilkie fit the bill as a former member of LACO, where Stanislav, Brophy and NHSQ cellist Andrew Shulman play. Wilkie is an experienced chamber player, a founder of the onetime Angeles String Quartet and concertmaster on numerous Hollywood film scores.

Sunday’s concert then began with the second of Brahms’ three string quartets (in place of the third, which is being moved to later in the festival in the hope that Stanislav will be back). Wilkie was also featured in Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F Minor, which closed the program.

LACO concertmaster Margaret Batjer, already on the bill to play in Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 2 on Monday, further filled in for Stanislav in the First String Sextet, which closed the program.

The concerts begin at 7:30 with ample early-evening light pouring through the trees that surround the room’s windows, darkening during the first half of the program. After intermission, with its cookies and coffee, the windows are black. Brahms is thought to have been an autumnal composer, his early music, for all its vigor, as somberly silken and moody as his end-of-days late style.

Hollywood Brahms has always shown more life, if sometimes highlighting the nostalgia of a late Romanticism. In the quartet and quintet Monday, Wilkie added an edginess, perhaps a way to make a statement when there could not have possibly been time to prepare nuance.

On top of that, Weiss proved a jumpy pianist keen on exploiting Brahms’ rhythmic sizzle, dominating loud and dramatic passages.

Batjer, on the other hand, brought a gleaming warmth on Monday in the piano quartet, which featured the understated violinist Rafael Rishik of the NHSQ and L.A. Phil principal cellist Robert deMaine.

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The highlight was the string sextet. Brahms was but 27 when he wrote it. The string textures are thick and luxurious. Melodies flow freely. Intertwining cellos — arrestingly handled by Harrell and Shulman — serve as Brahmsian roots, as massive and complex as those under the ground on which we sat. Wine-tinted violas (Neubauer and Brophy) partnered mainly with the cellos, adding hues of aural green and brown.

But it was Batjer who led with an enthusiastic robustness that revealed Brahms’ true progressive colors. She was the explorer cutting a path forward, championing all that was new, the adventure with form, structure, harmony and rhythm that would ultimately help pave the way toward the 20th century.

When Brahms, in his early 60s, did reach close to the 20th century, he looked back as much as forward. He pared down, writing sonatas. There are fewer notes. The music loses adamancy, becoming more ambiguous and anomalous, Medieval as well as modern.

Two late sonatas, Opus 120, exist in versions for viola or clarinet, and both were made to sound vital. Nowik, no doubt encouraged by Weiss on Sunday, brought confident fervor to the second, showing herself to be a young violist ready to make her mark.

L.A. Phil principal clarinetist Boris Allakhverdyan, along with pianist Bernadene Blaha, likewise kept Brahms’ spirits up as they all but pounced on the outer movements of the first sonata Monday. But it was Allakhverdyan’s sheer liquidity in the slow movement, the melodic line seeming to leap from leaf to leaf in the trees swaying in the windows behind him as though pollinating new music, that best captured the meaning of late Brahms.

Summer of Brahms

Where: South Pasadena Public Library

When: 7:30 p.m. nightly through Sunday

Cost: $15 — $40

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Info: newhollywoodstringquartet.com


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